The ABA Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) has a tradition of encouraging our outgoing commissioners to offer reflections on their time with SOGI and occasionally a little advice for those coming behind. The SOGI commission has opened this tradition the broader community, featuring these conversations in The Equalizer. It has been my honor to serve on the commission with Meg Milroy, Ghenete Wright Muir, and Shannon Minter. The following interview offers an insider perspective on attorneys working to advance LGBTQ2 rights and their reflections on their leadership on the SOGI commission and within the profession. Please be aware that each commissioner provided lengthy and wonderful answers to the questions asked, but in the interest of space we have provided an edited version.
Good afternoon. Before we dive in, I’d like to learn a little more about your path to the ABA. What is your ABA origin story? How did you become involved in the ABA and the SOGI Commission?
Meg: I initially got involved in 1989 for substantive reasons related to my practice area at the time. I became active in the Business Law Section pretty much right away. Among other leadership roles, I was really excited to get the opportunity to chair the Diversity and Inclusion committee and was the co-drafter of the Business Law Section’s first diversity plan. It was one of the first big sections within the ABA to create such a plan. While continuing in leadership in the BLS, due to my interest in diversity and inclusion I have served on nearly all of the ABA’s Goal III Commissions. I was very honored when the Business Law Section nominated me for the SOGI commission and have been so happy to continue my work as an ally in the ABA D&I space. It may look like I was just jumping from Goal III entity to Goal III entity. But LGBTQ2 rights was a common thread to my ABA work and I tried to expand LGBTQ2 presence in every area. Within the Business Law Section that included supporting the addition of LGBTQ2 candidates to the Section’s Fellows program, an incredibly rich program which funds the Fellows attendance at BLS meetings for 2 years and quickly involves Fellows in leadership in the Section.
Shannon: Well, the NCLR does a lot of family law and we have always been focused on the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) which is strong tool for protecting family rights and applies to our families as well. Around 1999 a new version of the UPA was proposed that would have harmed many families and would have been particularly devastating for LGBTQ2 parents. When the new version was presented to the ABA for approval, NCLR mounted a campaign to discourage the ABA from supporting the revised UPA until those negative changes were remedied. The effort was successful and resulted in changes that were extremely positive both for LGBTQ2 families and many other parents and children. That version was added and approved in 2001. That experience taught me how important and constructive the ABA’s voice can be—so I’ve been involved ever since.
Ghenete: I got involved through the Diverse Leaders’ Academy which is a program of the ABA Section of Litigation. I had always been very involved in Florida bar association activities, as a leader in the legal community and I wanted to get involved on the national level and started to research national bar associations. The ABA was the obvious choice. I selected SOGI because I wanted to serve the LGBTQ2 community and it seemed to be an excellent opportunity to serve. The Section of Litigation was very helpful with the learning process and Jim Holmes, one of the past SOGI chairs, helped me as well.
What SOGI project or activity are you most proud of over the last three years?
Ghenete: I would say working on the newsletter, the Equalizer, with you Kori! I’ve been a contributing writer and co-editor. In 2017, I helped with the inaugural LGBT Forum for the Section of Litigation, and wrote an article for The Equalizer introducing the LGBT forum and it was a cross-pollination of the two entities. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed the process.
Shannon: I’d say the publication of Banning Conversion Therapy on Minors: A Guide for Creating Tribal and State Legislation. I was so thrilled and proud the commission was able to support this incredible resource, which will help states and tribes protect young people from this deadly practice.
Meg: Working on SOGI resolutions before the ABA House of Delegates. While there were so many people involved in the process, I was happy to learn about drafting and the politics behind the resolutions. Now we have ABA policy that allows us to go out and take public stances on things like the Equality Act. While I’ve played a tiny role, it was really great work and probably some.
How has the discussion or progress of LGBTQ2 issues changed throughout your career?
Shannon: It’s changed enormously. When I started practicing 25 years ago, LGBTQ2 parents still routinely lost custody of their children due to their sexual orientation or gender identity in many states. Marriage equality not only didn’t exist in any state, it wasn’t even seen as a remote possibility. Only a few states had anti-discrimination rights for LGBTQ2 employees. The trans rights movement was still small and had not been incorporated into the larger equality movement. Our country had no openly LGBTQ2 judges and barely any openly LGBTQ2 elected officials. The devastation wreaked by conversion therapy was largely invisible, and certainly there were no state or local laws addressing it. So much has changed, but we still need to enact federal anti-discrimination protections and more state law protections—and we still need to ensure that LGTBQ2 people are protected and respected in every part of this country and at every stage of their lives.
Ghenete: I wasn’t part of the community until recently. I came out as openly gay around five years ago. So in that short time great things have happened, despite some backsliding with the current administration. I wasn’t part of the community when folks were fighting for marriage equality. When I joined the community, Obama was president. I’m fortunate in that regard, still learning a lot about the progress we’ve made and grateful for the SOGI commission’s work, commissioner perspectives, and just the history that’s in the room when we meet.
What do you think is the next big issue for the movement?
Meg: I’d say this very troubling rollback of transgender protections, there had been some ground gained and now with this adminis- tration, we’re all seeing the horrible reversal of rights.
Ghenete: Well based on what I’m seeing; I think it’s discrimination in the workplace nationally.
Shannon: I agree with Ghenete. One very important challenge facing our community is what to expect from our newly reconfigured Supreme Court. The Title VII cases will be of monumental significance for decades to come.
That's interesting, discrimination is something we've all seen in the workplace. Do you have any advice for law students or prospective law students about whether to be out as LGBTQ2 in the profession?
Ghenete: I think you have to test the waters in your workplace. If the workplace you’re in is welcoming, then great. One cue is whether the firm has an affinity group for LGBTQ2 associations. Do some research, ask around about the job and environment. I think you can still be out if it’s not welcoming, it will just be harder. I am gender nonconforming, and responses to my clothes was a real concern. But I decided to take the risk at work, wearing “masculine” coded clothes, and it went well. There wasn’t an issue, but I think folks should do what works best for them at the time.
Meg: I think that Ghenete’s info is spot on. Go with your gut really, hopefully you land in a welcoming spot. Like Ghenete said, do some research. Check for affinity groups, see what kind of pro-bono work they do, if an amicus brief is filed in support of an LGBTQ2 cause that’s a good sign. And remember, you don’t have to be out if you’re not comfortable.
Shannon: Students should absolutely feel free and empowered to be out and open about who they are. In most cases, they will find that it opens as many doors as it closes. In my experience, being one’s authentic self is an essential part of being truly happy in your career.
Do you have any advice for young attorneys considering getting involved in the ABA?
Ghenete: Well, I heard someone speak when I was a young lawyer in the Black Bar Association. He said, at some point, always take a leadership role and that really resonated with me. I was already on that path, but didn’t realize it and kept that in mind when choosing where to get involved. Young lawyers should think about where they can make the most impact, seek leadership roles. My other advice is to always put your family first and create balance where you can. I came in to the bar with kids, had my first child in law school so I was always a mom in the profession. I was able to do meaningful work, and there are always events in the legal community that allow children. Integrate your kid and family into the profession as much as you can, I still bring my sons on ABA trips and it’s a great experience for us as a family and for them as individu- als learning about the world.
Meg: I agree with Ghenete; you can still be very active within the ABA as a parent. Seek leadership roles, seize every opportunity. Within the Business Law Section, we try to get young lawyers involved. If someone asks you to work on a CLE or be a panelist, do it. That starts you down the path to leadership. Find something you want to do, or like to do, an issue or group you’re passionate about, then show up and get involved.
Shannon: I would strongly encourage young attorneys to get involved with the ABA. Pick a committee or area where you can be active. It’s intellectually and professionally rewarding. It’s also an opportu- nity to have a real impact on the profession and our society. Policy positions the ABA take really matter in the broader society and it’s important to have dedicated and idealistic folks participating and holding us to our highest principles and values.